How the Intelligence Community Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Virtual Worlds

DNI-seal_small Social media and virtual worlds have nabbed headlines as potential game-changers in every field from business to political discourse, and most of that praise is well-deserved. But there is one community of experts consistently skeptical of the utility of virtual worlds.

Can recent improvements in the privacy and information security of virtual worlds win over the government intelligence community? According to some recent reporting by The Economist and Security Director News, even covert agents are warming to the potential communication power of firewalled worlds.

The Intelligence Community Makes a Facebook

When you think of the intelligence community, what comes to mind? Secret agents stalking foreign operatives? Overworked Arabic translators desperately trying to weed through nonsense chatter in search of valuable information in the fight against global extremism? Most of these assumptions aren't far from the mark.

The intelligence community is an insular collection of government employees from departments and agencies as diverse as Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the CIA, and even trusted government contractors like the RAND Corporation. For the men and women in this exclusive clique, information security can mean the difference between a foiled terrorist plot and a major domestic catastrophe.

That's why so few intelligence agencies have been willing to make the jump into virtual conferencing. In the view of the community, the Internet is just too full of holes. For most defense specialists, even poking around a work computer can be a serious criminal offense.

However, government skepticism of virtual worlds and social media is beginning to thaw, thanks in part to advances in information security brought about by the maturation and expansion of virtual worlds into mainstream business operations. Companies like Linden Lab now provide a protected, private virtual world where meetings can be conducted in secrecy.

The need for rapid sharing of information even spurred the Director of National Intelligence to develop a secure social media hub where spies, analysts and researchers can quickly share vital national security information. Known cryptically as "A-Space," this Facebook-for-counterterror-specialists is aimed stopping the poor communication that leads to situations like the attempted Detroit airline bomber.

In its January 30th issue, The Economist devoted it special report to the rise of social media in all aspects of our lives. Of special interest was A-Space and the gradual acceptance of social networking's value among long-time intelligence officials. Their conclusion? Under close government monitoring, tightly-controlled social networking could possibly save lives by encouraging the timely trading of information among previously isolated government specialists:

The intelligence community is developing a system called A-Space, a
sort of Facebook for spies that holds profiles of analysts from various
agencies and allows them to contact one another and to share large
amounts of text, graphics, images and videos.


Before a pilot of the system was launched in 2008 it often took
weeks, sometimes months, for spooks to track down relevant people to
talk to at other agencies. “The intelligence community was a bunch of
stove pipes,” says Ahmad Ishaq, A-Space’s project manager. Now the
14,000 people with access to the secure system can easily and quickly
get in touch with each other.

Moving a handful of formerly independent government agencies under one virtual roof is no small task, and the fact that the Director of National Intelligence is taking the move seriously showcases just how important virtual meeting spots are becoming to routine communication. As The Economist points out, virtual worlds are no longer just entertainment or communications hubs for the public – they're slowly fixing the systemic noncommunication that long ravaged the intelligence and counterterror communities.

Assuaging Concerns About Cybersecurity

The potential for information leak isn't solved, but companies promoting virtual conferencing and social media products are focusing more on fixing potential security and privacy breaches than ever before. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Facebook, where routine additions and renovations to the Privacy Policy seem to come and go on a weekly basis. But what about companies that hope to build virtual platforms specifically for industries where information security is a necessity?

A recent article by Martha Entwistle of Security Director News sheds light on the advancements already being made in the booming social media industry. As Entwistle points out, companies looking to do business with a newly-proactive government are integrating better security features with the ability to turn piles of discordant data into easily accessible, graphical interfaces:

These technologies will use the growing pool of data (geographical,
weather, historical, to name a few) to make computer-generated models
that will be extremely helpful in security applications, he said.

“It’s
all about the overlay of the virtual on the physical,” he said.
He
showed for example a simple video analytic application of traffic
patterns. Using available data on mapping, weather, and other
technologies, this simple application can give much more information
and options to the operator.

Among the emerging uses for augmented reality on steroids? Police dispatch. According to one developer mentioned in the article, a simple smartphone application could create an interactive grid that maps the locations of police officers. This could cut down on redundancy when officers respond to calls as well as prioritizing which officers respond to individual calls. More importantly, the technology could be encrypted to prevent unauthorized use.

As new government clients express interest in developing virtual networking platforms, companies will adapt products to their needs. Developing a Facebook clone with intense profile security isn't a logistical problem, it's just not a salient framework for a company that depends on mining data about its users for revenue. Homeland Security isn't looking to make money, so existing software could easily be upgraded and expanded upon to fit their needs.

All in all, not too complicated.

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